Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saturday Musings 06 December 2014

Good morning,

It's Little Christmas, known to Roman Catholics as "the Feast of St. Nicholas".  As a child, I was told that St. Nicholas brought cold coins for girls who could not marry because of being too poor to pay dowries.  We left our shoes out at night (boys and girls alike) and in the morning, gold-wrapped chocolate coins nestled in the heel of the shoe.  We'd bargain with our mother for leave to consume them for breakfast.

I'm tardy with my Musings today because last evening was the Holiday Open House at my office suite.  This successful gathering followed on the heels of my whirlwind trip to Stanford for evaluation by an Infectious Disease doctor there who specializes in the virus which has re-activated in me and now tromps all over various parts of my innards with glee.  The long and short of my medical journey to San Jose:  I qualify for the new drug; they have ordered it for me; and I gifted them with 13 vials of blood.  I'll return in 90 days, give them another 13 vials of blood to see if the little pill has done its job; and continue putting my best foot forward.

But the more intriguing part of my journey happened the day after my eight hours on the Stanford campus, when I embarked on the eastward voyage back to Kansas City.

I had succumbed to one inevitable and acknowledged that I would have been foolish to try to walk the length of the San Jose airport unassisted.  I checked a bag and self-identified as needing assistance.  Immediately, a slender gentleman, no taller than me and barely weighing more than my carry-on bag, appeared with a wheelchair and a smile.  I settled myself into the seat, balanced my bag on one of the footrests (I'm too small to need two), and away we went.

My escort whisked me past two long lines and through security.  I already get body scans due to having metal in my legs, so the biggest benefit to being "wheelchair-assist" lay in being first.  The San Jose airport would give a track star pause to consider if she had consumed enough carbs to traverse its length without flagging, so priority at the various points of access meant a quicker trip. My attendant took me to the proper counter, and I was given a preboarding pass, and then the man wheeled me to the gate, where I settled for a two-hour wait.

Minutes later, I heard the gate attendant tell someone, "All flights to Las Vegas have been canceled, they've been announcing it since six-thirty this morning."  My stomach clenched:  I was routed through Las Vegas to KC.  I released the brakes on the chair and inched myself over to her counter.  I extended my paperwork and asked for assistance; within minutes, the gate attendant had moved me down the concourse to Kristen, a Southwest Airlines customer service agent, and I had been rebooked through LAX on a flight which landed at 4 and a connection which would normally leave at 4:15 but which Kristen assured me had already been downgraded to 'three hours late', allowing me to make the connection with ease.  I had never been glad to hear about a late flight before that instant!

As Kristen handed me the new ticketing, she apologized for the problems and for the fact that I'd be arriving in KC at 12:40 a.m. instead of 9:40 p.m.  "Oh don't worry," I told her.  "The person meeting me won't be upset."  She looked startled, then let a smile creep across her tired face.  "Please tell that person that Kristen from Southwest Airlines says, Thank you."  I told her I would, and in a few minutes, another tiny human had wheeled me to my new gate, Gate 24, and parked me in the Designated Pre-Boarding Area.  I looked around for the Group W bench but alas, nowhere to be found.

A woman trudged over to the seat beside my wheelchair and landed in it with a thud.  I glanced over at her pinched face, noticing deep lines around her eyes, the furrow of her brow, and the downward tilt of her mouth.  I noticed, too, that she carried a Vera Bradley, so I led with that:  Nice handbag.  She looked down at it and said, Thanks, but it's old.  Ah, me.  Not a bright-sider, this one.

I asked her if she lived in San Jose.  I wish I still did, she told me.  I'm living in Los Angeles now, in a condo on the beach. It's miserable.  She shook her head.

I don't know much about Los Angeles, condos, or beaches, but I've seen enough reality shows to know that the combination is much to be desired by Californians.  I asked her, Why do you live there if you don't like it? and she replied, I wanted a fresh start but I hate it.  A friend was supposed to move out there with me and came but left after two weeks. He said he missed San Jose and his girlfriend. Now he's my ex-friend. She shook her head again, and I saw pain and bitterness mar her face.  I'm sixty-seven, she continued.  I'm not supposed to be alone.  I'm going to need help soon and I'm supposed to have help.  This wasn't the way my life was supposed to go.  And I swear, a tear rolled down her face and I thought, Oh my dear, oh my dear:  I totally understand how you feel but we must just forge new paths, my dear.  I bit back that thought and instead asked how she spent her time, in the condo, on the beach, in Los Angeles.

The tightness of her face eased a fraction.  I've taken up painting, she tells me.  I never painted before but I bought supplies and I'm painting.  I like happy paintings best.  I'm going to paint until every inch of the walls of the condo is covered with a canvas that I've painted.  Just then, a woman wearing a Southwest Airlines employee badge and a backpack crossed in front of us.  The woman next to me said, That lady is going to Disneyland with her family but she works for the airlines and she's been answering questions for everybody all morning.  We contemplated this for a while, and then the lady sighed and stood.  I better go to the bathroom, she told me, and trundled off.

A few minutes later, a heavy-set man in work-out clothing settled into the chair which she had vacated.  His face blazed with good humor; he met my eyes and broke into a grin.  Did you see those guys over there, he asked  me.  They play for the Warriors, I'm sure they do!  I didn't know who the Warriors were and said so, and he explained -- basketball.  His face continued to shine as he settled a small duffel under the seat and dropped a page of newsprint and his pre-boarding pass on the chair beside his.  I asked what ailment allowed him to preboard and he said, I got a bum knee, and stretched his feet as though to prove it.  He had sturdy, solid legs and massive calves.  He looked like someone who pounded pavement, or a treadmill, or a football field.  But I let it go.  Some disabilities cannot be seen.

The man said, What you going to LA for? and I briefly shared about the Las Vegas airport, fog, connecting flights.  Oh, sister, that's too bad! he replied, and shook his head.  His head shake evoked the opposite of his words.  On him, the motion said, But here you are!  And that's a good thing! and I felt my mouth twitch with good humor.  A few minutes later, I realized that the free hotel breakfast had not sufficiently caffeinated me and I asked the man to watch my bag while I got coffee.  He said, Sure, sure; can you manage that thing? meaning the wheelchair, and I said, I'm going to walk, watch the chair, too; I don't think I could go anywhere without it.  He beamed.  I walked the short distance to the Peet's Coffee and threw all caution to the wind. I ordered a Carmel machiatto with almond milk just because I'd never had one.

While I stood waiting, another miniature being wheeled a heavy-set, scowling woman to the counter.  The woman in the wheelchair surveyed the cooler and said, Is that all the bottled water they have?  I don't want that bottled water!"  And she hollered across the counter:  You got better bottled water than this?  I don't want this kind!" and everyone within a ten-foot radius cringed.  I put a dollar in the tip jar and moved to take my coffee and hobble back to Gate 24 and the cheerful guy with the bum knee.

He said, Okay, it's my turn, I'm gonna go find a hot dog, will you watch my bag?  Just then, the recorded voice announcing flights reminded us, If any unknown person asks you to carry anything for them, please decline, and the two of us started laughing.  He took out an ID wallet and showed me a license with his name and picture.  We shook hands and declared ourselves known, and then he went off to find a hot dog.  Five minutes later he came back with a fish taco and the information that the basketball players were from the Warriors' D-league team and were going to LA for a game against LA's D-league team.  I asked him how he knew and he said that he had just walked up to one of them and started a conversation.  No strangers to this guy, no siree:  Everybody is a future friend to Vic, the part-time body guard from Los Angeles.  (Part-time body guard, full-time Verizon employee.)

When our flight was called, another short airport employee whisked me over to the door and down the walkway to the plane.  I refrained from commenting on his stature but thought to myself, Maybe being small is in their job description.  The flight attendant asked me if I could walk from the chair to a seat on the plane and I told him yes, the chair was just to get sympathy from other passengers, and we all had a good laugh.  I took a middle seat because I, too, am short and sitting in the middle is not uncomfortable for me.  Soon members of the San Jose Warriors D-League team started filing past me.  People high-fived them, wished them luck and, in the case at least of the part-time body guard, started schmoozing them for tickets.  I'm not sure people realized they were not the Warriors themselves, as they all wore Warriors warm-up jackets. But nobody really cared.  We had a plane full of very tall, good-looking young men and we all gawked shamelessly. They grinned back and settled down with their head phones and iPads.

We landed in Los Angeles on the smoothest wheels I've eer felt.  Vic looked across the aisle from me, raised his eyebrows, and grinned.  We do it better here, he seemed to be telling me.  I wondered if the lady with the condo on the beach might like Vic but I didn't see her in the departing passengers and anyway, Vic deserved someone a little more cheerful.

When all the Warriors had sauntered past me, the flight attendant told me that my ride had arrived.  He reached down and easily lifted my computer bag while I clutched my pocketbook, and moved myself across the plane's threshold to lower myself into yet another wheelchair.  I said, Don't worry, I won't fall, that would mean too much paperwork, and we all chuckled, including the elf behind the chair.  Yes, folks, you guessed it:  I outweighed my assistant by at least ten pounds, and I only weigh 106 (110 fully clothed, with shoes).  I think they breed wheelchair assistants for diminutive size in a mill somewhere in northern California.

But the guy knew his stuff and started down the concourse with a deftness that had  the wind whipping in my face.  I must admit, it felt exhilarating.  Sure, I can walk, as you all know -- but why walk when you can fly?

 As we sailed past the weekend travelers at an astounding speed, my guide told me he had come from Viet Nam six years ago, lived in a rented room in some one's house while he saved money, and that America is the best place to live "in the world".

My new friend parked me by a pillar and scooted himself to the edge of the customer service counter.  I saw a Southwest Airline employee move towards him.  A slender blond head leaned towards a small brown face; and a pre-boarding pass crossed from hand to hand.  Only in America!

With my special ticket now stapled to my original boarding pass, we started off towards Gate 12 which I am here to tell you, is a "far piece" from the customer service counter where we had secured the pre-boarding pass.  By that time, my broken tooth had started to ache.  My assistant (I never got his name, sad to say) asked me if I needed to stop "for the Ladies' room, for food, or for anything else Madam might need" en route.  I thought, instantly, Tylenol, and into a store we went, with the clerk breaking her routine to smile at my attendant and point to the little rack of tiny boxes of medical necessities.  I got a tube of Tylenol, a bottle of water, and off we went, my wallet seven dollars thinner.

At the gate to my KC flight, the little man from Viet Nam almost didn't accept my tip but I insisted.  Perhaps that's his normal routine:  A show of protest, then a grudging acceptance and a heartfelt thanks.  But it seemed genuine.  I watched him speed off while listening to something in an earpiece, and thought, Off to help someone else.  Lucky someone else! 

With two hours until boarding, I gazed around for a diversion.  I could always read but talking to people passes the time more quickly.  The guy in the wheelchair next to mine had a large blue bag in his lap, a John Grisham novel, and an old flip phone.  Is the book good, I asked; and twenty minutes later, knew the whole plot.  I shifted my hips, shook my shoulders, and started looking around for someone that might know where the ladies' room was hiding.

The man in the Southwest Airlines uniform standing next to me asked me if I needed anything.  I admitted my need and he walked over to the gate attendant and whispered.  When he came back, he said, they'll call for someone, and asked me if I was on the next flight.  I shook my head.  "Kansas City," I told him. He raised his eyebrows and asked if I knew that flight had been delayed.  I assured him I did and asked him what he was waiting for, and he told me, I fly airplanes, and I'm piloting the next flight out of this gate.  We shared a few minutes of silence then he spoke again:  It's funny, he said.  Fifteen years ago, a doctor gave me six months to live.  Now I have a nine-year old daughter and fly planes all over the country.  I felt the joy exuding from him.  When the doors opened for the crew to walk down to the aircraft, I told him, Godspeed, and he replied, Every day.  Every day.

The lady who came to wheel me to the restroom couldn't have weighed more than eighty pounds nor stood taller than four-feet-ten.  But she eased me through the evening travelers with a lilting cry of, Coming through!  Excuse me please!  Coming through!  Excuse me please! and parked me at the door of the women's room from which a long line snaked.  But when I stood to walk to the end of the line, the person closest to the entry said, Come on in! and took my elbow.  She guided me through the sea of tired women, with their heavy handbags and their wrinkled jackets, saying to the group at large, This lady needs the accessible stall.  When I exited, she was waiting, and parted the sea of ladies to see me safely back to the waiting airport attendant.  Within minutes, I was parked back in my old space, this time by a man traveling to see his niece get married,  who had five hours to kill before the next flight to Las Vegas, and intended to spend it talking to anyone who sat beside him, because why not?  It beats feeling sorry for myself!  He told me that his sister didn't know his niece had invited him; that his husband had warned him not to go because the mother of the bride would be angry; but he was going anyway.   Because Why Not?  I'm her only Uncle! and I could see the wisdom in that.

I can still walk, and plan to walk every day of my life just as my mother instructed me so many years ago.  If you walk every day of your life, you will walk every day of your life, she would say.  So keep walking.  And  I do:  on my lily white spastic legs, in varying degrees of good humor; sometimes gritting my teeth; sometimes wincing; sometimes just pulling up my big-girl panties, sucking it up, lacing the Doc Martens, and trundling on.  I resist using a cane, a walker, and, God forbid, a wheelchair.  I fight the slow but steady progress of the decline of my ability and intend to live to be one-hundred and three, just as I promised my son when he was five and asked me if I would die before he got old.  And I plan to nag him every day of his life, as I said I would, though I see less and less opportunity to do so as he soars above me in his quest to live a wonderful life.

All of that said:  As I settled into my seat on the flight from LAX to MCI, which would, ultimately, land at 12:45 a.m., I found myself grateful for a day spent in a wheelchair, riding in various corridors, in two airports, in rainy California.  What a wonderful opportunity, after a long year full of personal trials and national tragedies, to meet so many pleasant people with smiles to spare, and moments of generosity to give me.  The lights dimmed in the airplane as we started into the air, and the young man sitting by the window leaned toward me.  Can I help you with that packaging, he said, gesturing to the granola bar that I had taken out to be my supper.  As I handed it to him, I realized that I had been smiling since I left my hotel room at 10:00 a.m.  I was smiling still when we landed in Kansas City, and another person, smaller in stature even than I am, moved towards me with a blue wheelchair.  Welcome to Kansas City, ma'am, he said, and away we went.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.